Our Alternate Bearing Mandarin Orange Tree – Feast or Famine

Our Alternate Bearing Mandarin Orange Tree – Feast or Famine

This a photo I took this morning in the backyard of our Owari Satsuma Mandarin orange tree.  It is alternate bearing and gets very heavy with fruit every other year. As you can see, it is in definitely in its “on year.”

Nestled in our backyard micro orchard is one of my favorite winter fruit trees, mandarin, that we planted in 2000.  At the time we planted it, my toddler son and I were going to two different farmers markets a week during peak mandarin season because we both loved them so much, eating as many as 4 or 5 at a time.  Now a days, it is easy to find “Cuties,” in the grocery stores, but they are nothing compared to a freshly picked mandarin. Unfortunately, our Owari Satsuma mandarin orange tree is an alternate bearing tree, also called biennial or uneven bearing.  That means, one year we get an enormous crop, with as much as 500 mandarins on the little dwarf fruit tree, but then the next year we are lucky if we get three or four dozen. As you can tell by my photos, this year is a big crop year and the poor little tree is heavy and hanging a bit with tons of fruit right now.  If it was not raining right now, I would probably be out harvesting the tree, rather than writing about it.

A couple of times when I was expecting it to be a heavy crop year, I tried cutting off some of the newly emerged flowers in Spring, and then some of the small fruit buds in early summer, to order to encourage it to not put so much energy into fruiting and save some for the following year.  Here is a link to a recent study on the practice.  I haven’t have much luck encouraging it to make similar sized crops each year.  Generally, I live with the fact that we have a bounty of fruit to share with the food bank and friends in some years, and in other years, it is just enough for our family.  The only thing I do to minimize the alternate bearing now is gleaning all the fruit all off tree by new year’s and making sure it gets a nice pruning, right about the same time I do the apples and roses.

The fruits on our Owari Satsuma tree are oblate, rounded, or a squat pear shape.  Most of them are medium size, averaging 2 to 3 1/2 inches wide, give or take a little.  They are really easy to peel, slightly rough and bumpy, with a rich, sweet, sub-acid flavor.  Some of them are nearly seedless, as they should be, but some of them have 1-4 seeds.  On my tree, the larger fruits are usually the ones with seeds. If there were no other fertile citrus trees or bees around, I would probably have more seedless fruit. However, I have 3 other citrus trees, multiple neighbors have citrus, and there is at least one bee keeper near by within 300 yards, so pollination happens. It produces early in the citrus season, starting in late November to Mid December here in SoCal, but it is only holds well on the tree for a short 3 to 4 week period.  After December, the fruit quality begins to deteriorate and loose its nice flavor and texture.  Once the fruit is picked, it doesn’t have a long shelf life.  We usually try to eat them within a week of picking. The tree is small and pretty much thorn less. I intentionally keep the tree small, like most of my other backyard fruit trees.  Each year it gets pruned so it is no taller than I can reach with a pair of hand pruners.  This way, I never have to get up on a ladder or use a fruit picker to get the fruit.  Anyway, a fruit picker would probably damage the fragile easy to peel skins.

A close up of a cluster of the Owari Satsuma mandarins. The tree is about 13 years old now and about 5 feet tall, however, it would be a bit taller if I didn’t keep it pruned shorter. It reached this height by the time it was about five or six years old.

Two good links to more info on Mandarin varieties, citrus reticulata, and additional information about growing them:

A side note for Southern California backyard citrus growers:  Parts of Los Angeles County and Orange County are under a citrus quarantine these days.  There is a terrible treat to citrus in California from Huanglongbing or citrus greening.  It is spread by a psyllid. For more info on Huanglongbing, visit this link at Cal. Dept. Food And Ag. for detailed description and links to the quarantine maps.  There is also a link there to a youtub video showing the diagnosis of the disease.

Cutie Mandarin Orange Owari Satsuma tangerine
A photo showing the different sized fruit all on the same dwarf Mandarin tree. Size shown next to a quarter.

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